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Female CEOs Inch Forward

By Sarah Klein

With the high-profile departures of Meg Whitman from eBay and Carly Fiorina from Hewlett-Packard, and the recent retirement of Susan Arnold from Proctor & Gamble, you would be forgiven for thinking that women had taken a step backwards in the leadership ranks of Fortune 500 companies. However, despite still being seriously underrepresented, there has actually been a rise the number of female CEOs, up to 15 in 2009 from 12 the previous year.

The few companies led by women deal with everything from food and beverages, to beauty products, to health care, to agriculture. But where women are perhaps most underrepresented is in the field of technology. Only two of the 15 female CEOs are in the tech business – Anne Mulcahy at Xerox and Carol Bartz, the 60-year-old CEO of Yahoo!

Mulcahy has been at Xerox for over 30 years, taking the top job back in 2001. She has steered Xerox away from bankruptcy and has become a favorite of Wall Street for taking the tough decisions.

Ms. Bartz has only been in charge at Yahoo! since January, after previously heading-up Autodesk, the world’s largest producer of design-software for use in architecture and engineering. Yahoo! is looking to Bartz to turn things around. She dramatically increased Autodesk’s stock price, but Yahoo! will prove more difficult: Google, Microsoft and hundreds of competing ad networks continue to snip away at Yahoo!’s core businesses.

The highest-ranked company led by a woman is Archer Daniels Midland (#27 on the Fortune 500), one of the largest corn-based ethanol producers. After 30 years in the oil industry, CEO Patricia Woertz, 56, is now committed to growing Archer Daniels by methods other than corn-based ethanol production.

One of the most successful female CEOs on the list is Irene Rosenfeld, CEO of Kraft Foods. According to the LA Times, Kraft Foods, which ranks 53 on the Fortune 500, was the best performing of all women-led firms in 2008. She’s also the only woman to head-up a Dow 30 company. Rosenfeld, 55, believes Kraft’s fortunes will continue to rise as more families look to eat at home to save money.

While 15 is still a tiny percentage of the overall total, the increase does represent some steady improvement. As recently as 1996, there was just one woman gracing the list of corporate power players!

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